By Rudranath Sanyal
In his seminal book, The Great Mutiny: India 1857, popular historian Christopher Hibbert had reproduced a startling observation of Lady Charlotte Canning, the first Vicereine of British India. She said English families that had settled in India before the Mutiny of 1857, were “more insipid and dull than words can explain…and generally very under bred”. Lady Canning had clarified that these British men and women who lived in India but went to England for education were not any subset of native Indian society. In fact, in that age, Europeans who lived and flourished in India looked up to well rounded and prosperous Indians like Dwarakanath Tagore who were received by British PMs in London and entertained by Queen Victoria in her palace.
MJ Akbar’s latest book Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj comes with more astonishing pointers. With thorough research that includes vignettes from both 1857 and the periods before and after that phase, Akbar unfolds an in-depth history of continuous Indian influence on global military affairs. While the book was ready for printing before the current conflict in Ukraine began and, as such, there could be no reference to it, Akbar has presciently collated facts and figures from the past to manifest some of the inherently exclusive essentials of modern Europe’s expectations from India.
In its pages, significant issues come alive alongside interlinked benign matters. We find that by the third quarter of the 19th century, some Britishers took to referring themselves as ‘white Brahmins’, even as Britain used taxes to curtail its imports from India. When some British subalterns started to offend the dignity of Indian rajas, Queen Victoria herself hosted the rajas and also met reformers like Keshub Chandra Sen who wanted to restore the ancient glory of India. Akbar opens a novel vista for further research into a hitherto untapped realm. For more example, he reproduces a stunning quote of an anonymous early English traveller: “If the people of this land have really built the Taj, the sooner we English leave the country, the better. We have no business to live here and claim to be their masters.”
The subtitle of Akbar’s 359-page account, Racism and Revenge in the British Raj, is just a teaser. His story is not limited to British racism. He busts the myth that early settlers of the British East India company were tough customers. The book’s cover illustration is the pointer: The Black Zamindar (Indian elite) could easily singe the Doolally Sahab (drunk Englishman) who drank arrack and tried their hands with other Indian intoxicants. An ambient quote of Robert Ivermee about British experiments with Indian bhang brings out the flavour: “The majority became merry, but one of them sat on the floor and wept all afternoon; another stuck his head into a large jar and kept it there for more than four hours; four or five began complimenting one another till they turned into emperors; one had a serious fight with a wooden pillar until the skin of his knuckles wore out and two sweated for three hours till they were nearly dehydrated.”
Accounts of established historians have been posited with recorded observations of the protagonists, courtiers, laymen and passers-by of respective sets and subsets of history in Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar, to show why and how Indians have perpetually been important to generations of European royalty and rulers who took the call. Queen Victoria “could be sentimental about Indians in an era where men like Curzon believed sentiment was a physical illness”, says the author. He backs it with exclusive connecting links between Indian and European military history before and after the Victorian era.
Akbar wraps up the Battle of Plassey episode in a single paragraph but not before manifesting simultaneous conflicts among other European powers that had set their eyes on Indian resources. We find references to wars and armistices in other parts of the globe that had a direct bearing on political developments in India at that time. Earlier, the French had strengthened their bases in Kolkata under the command of Joseph Francois Dupleix who went on to capture Madras in 1746, but had to return it to the East India Company of Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Aix la Chappelle. The company kept its politico-military antenna tuned to goings on far across the seas; when details about the treaty between France and America reached India, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, India’s first English newspaper, taunted Britain’s foes (launching a 21st century-like psychological offensive).
Before the Battle of Plassey, the most important revelation for Britain (and other European powers) was that the tax revenue from Bengal alone amounted “to some 33 million Pounds a year” and “trade with India was roughly one-fifth of world trade”. India’s high-end products were then as coveted in London and Paris as in Delhi. “Dhaka’s exquisite, light, translucent, gossamer-thin muslin, described as ‘woven air’ became the high point of fashion in 18th century London and Paris. The puritan Aurangzeb famously scolded his daughter for immodesty when she wore a dress made of seven layers of cotton muslin…Marie Antoinette wore muslin around her neck on her way to the guillotine. Napoleon banned its import to protect domestic textiles.”
Both content and form of Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar are riveting and unique. Here Akbar has interspersed his usual stylish prose with rhymes, doggerels, ballads and blank verse. Shakespeare’s Hamlet finds a place in an Indian setting in a Bengali village that was so remote that it was near impossible for Europeans to reach. A British collector who wanted to be part of the entertainment with his entourage reached the venue on elephant back after shooting dead a leopard that had charged out of the forest. Hard insights pour out for the reader. There is entertainment for all.
Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar is a complete story and a must-read for the young and old. Yet, on another parallel plane, the author has not explicitly answered all the questions that he has raised. The writer limits his own comments and conclusions in a series of interconnected issues that he weaves together and addresses. In the tradition of ancient Indian rishis, the author has recourse to beautiful hints and sublime riddles for discerning readers to draw their own conclusions. But Akbar is known for springing surprises. Maybe a part two or three of the book is on the anvil.
(Rudranath Sanyal is a veteran television journalist and former additional DG, Doordarshan)
Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar
Pp 359, Rs 899